Today’s Courier Herald Column:
It’s hard to beat somebody with nobody. The list of Republican somebodies on the 2014 ballot will be extensive. Presumably, Governor Nathan Deal, Senator Saxby Chambliss, Lieutenant Governor Casey Cagle, and the cast of other Republican statewide elected officials will be on the ballot. They will have plentiful war chests of campaign cash, a statewide network of organized county party organizations, and the full complement of the trappings of incumbency.
Democrats, meanwhile, begin the campaign with no statewide elected officials, barring an upset in the one Public Service Commission race for which they managed to field a candidate. Instead of high dollar fundraisers to attract the cash from those who wish to remain on the good list of the well connected they are having Hip Hop/R&B dance nights with a $20 cover to raise money. Their senior party officials have had a public feud over direction, finances and management issues. Evidence of the party’s organization outside I-285 is scarce. And the bench of candidates in waiting to take on the long list of Republican incumbents is….well, minimal is about as charitable of a word one can construct.
The bench was effectively cleared when the top talent available in 2010 declared political suicide missions in attempts at higher offices. Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond left a relatively safe spot at Labor Commissioner in a quixotic attempt to oust a much more popular Senator Johnny Isakson. Attorney General Thurbert Baker was unable to even make it to the nomination for Governor, with Democrats yielding to the attempted comeback of former Governor Roy Barnes.
The clearing of the Democratic bench has left little machine in place to raise funds, and few with extensive name identification. Nonetheless, Democrats looking ahead to 2014 will no doubt take inspiration from President Bill Clinton, who addressed their Convention in Charlotte this week as the party’s favorite son.
When he announced for President, his opponent had some of the highest job approval ratings ever recorded and had just won a war after building a huge international coalition. Two years later, he was President because almost no one else wanted the job when he lined up to take it.
Georgia’s emerging Democratic leaders would be wise to avoid listening to those who whisper the Bill Clinton parallel into their ears. Clinton had a national party ready to deliver money and votes to an eventual candidate, whereas the current Democratic Party of Georgia has yet to prove it can extend its reach beyond the 404 area code.
All three names most often mentioned as the future of the party reside inside Atlanta’s perimeter highway, the major island of Georgia’s Democrats surrounded by a red sea of Republicans. Mayor Kasim Reed, Senator Jason Carter, and House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams all have statewide potential, but frankly, are needed in their current positions past 2014 to establish a viable alternative for Democratic Governance if the party is to again emerge as a credible contender in Georgia’s policy debate.
Reed has shown an understanding of statewide issues and a willingness to work across party lines and substantial geographic distances to solve Georgia’s problems. His assistance to expand the Port of Savannah is well documented. His attempt to help the Atlanta region solve its traffic problems may not have ended the way he wanted, but if Republicans are still searching for a solution in 2018 when the Governor’s seat is again open, he can at least point to a pro-active solution that wasn’t.
Senator Carter, meanwhile, is among the legislative leaders willing to buck Republicans with specific pro-active policy alternatives. He is largely credited with slowing the Governor’s reforms to the HOPE scholarship in 2011, and based on a banner flying over Sanford Stadium during UGA’s home opener, it appears Democrats will continue to rally around this message.
Abrams has thus far been more willing to work with Republicans, carving out planks within Republican legislation to make it more favorable to her Democratic constituency. She remains well respected within the legislature on both sides of the aisle, but has yet to achieve the statewide name ID that Reed carries as the Mayor of Georgia’s largest city or Carter who has deep roots in rural Georgia that come with a Presidential pedigree.
While each shows great potential for future leadership, each is also relatively young. There is plenty of time for them to grow in their current roles, perfect an actual agenda, and reconnect with the parts of the state that can no longer identify with the national Democratic Party.
In the mean time, Democrats need to patch relations with South Georgia social conservatives who feel alienated by current party leadership. 2014 should be a year to field candidates that represent more than the neighborhoods surrounding Emory University or South Atlanta. While preparing to move the party forward, Democrats should probably take one cycle to look backward.
Anyone know what Sam Nunn is doing these days?